How to Write a Better Fundraising Letter

Make Your Fundraising Letter Personable, Specific and Easy-to-Read

Just like copywriting, writing great fundraising letters is not for the amateur. However, unlike businesses that can often afford to pay the big bucks for great copywriting, nonprofits, especially small ones, often depend on in-house staff to write that important letter and to put together their direct mail package.

Here to help are the Cardinal Rules of writing a fundraising letter, adapted from Mal Warwick's immensely useful How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters.

Use "I" and "You," but mostly "You."

Writer working on a fundraising letter.
Luca Sage/Taxi/Getty Images

Forget what you've learned about writing a press release or a brochure and think of how you would write a letter to another person, like your aunt or next door neighbor.

Add human interest and emphasize the personal touch by using "I" and "You." Those two words could keep your letter out of the trash bin.

Talk about benefits, not needs.

Donors give to get something in return, like the good feelings that come from helping others, or an opportunity to enjoy a great experience. They are not interested in your budget deficit.

Intangible benefits are the lives saved or human dignity restored. Tangible benefits could be tickets to an exclusive performance of your ballet company or early admission to a special exhibit at your museum.

Tell your donors what they will get out of their donation, both tangible and intangible.

Ask for money, not for support.

Be explicit when asking for money.

Example: Send $25 or more today.

Be clear and repeat some variation of your call to action throughout the letter. Don't be shy and don't be vague.

Write a package, not a letter.

The letter is the most important piece of your package, but it is only a part of a multi-piece unit that must all work together.

At the very least, your package will contain an outer envelope, a reply envelope, and a reply device, as well as the letter. Think about how each of these can persuade donors to take action now.

Use a unifying theme, symbols, colors and typefaces so the package is both memorable and accessible.

Write in simple, straightforward English.

Your words should be powerful and your sentences short and punchy.

Use emotional words rather than those that demand analysis. Avoid foreign phrases and big words.

Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, and avoid abbreviations or acronyms.

Spell out names. Repeat and even underline key words and phrases.

Readers skim, so make it easy to find the meat of your message without reading the entire letter.

Make your letter easy to read.

The eye needs to rest, so leave plenty of white space around your copy.

  • Indent each paragraph.
  • Avoid paragraphs that are more than seven lines long. But do vary their length.
  • Use bullets to add oomph to your points.
  • Use subheads. If the letter is long, try centering and underlining the subheads.
  • Underline sparingly but consistently to call attention to key words and phrases.

Give readers a reason to send money NOW.

Create a sense of urgency with a deadline for a matching donation, or mention a budget period or a particular holiday.

Repeat your argument for urgency in the text of the letter, in your P.S. and on your reply device. Be careful about using actual dates if you are using bulk mail. The letter might arrive after the date mentioned.

Write as much as you need to make your case.

Many people will read every word of your letter while others may just scan it. Write to both groups with a reasonably long letter that is easy to scan.

Don't worry about annoying your long time supporters. Research shows that even the most active donors may remember little about your organization, so don't worry about repeating yourself.

Think of your letter as yet another opportunity to educate your donor about what your organization does and why that is important.

These points are just a sampling of Mal Warwick's expertise. His book, has ample tips, examples, and case studies. There's also an excellent Writer's Toolbox with suggestions for developing a great fundraising package from envelope teasers to ways to handle the P.S. for your letter.

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